BEIRUT: Tarek Khatib does not want to be environment minister again.
"I prefer not to come back to this post, because ... the situation of this ministry, it is not encouraging,” the departing minister told The Daily Star. “But I’m not saying I couldn’t do anything [about the environment].”
In an interview at his office in Downtown Beirut, Khatib said people “run away from the ministry” because it has “not many powers, no ability to implement, its prerogatives are mixed up with other ministries and there is no environmental culture among Lebanese.”
A lawyer by profession and mayor of the small town of Hasrout for 18 years from 1998 until his appointment in 2016, Khatib admits environmental expertise had little to do with his appointment.
Since 1989, he has been loyal to President Michel Aoun and said he had a personal relationship with the president. A lack of environmental expertise “did not help me. It’s doesn’t mean you can’t do work when you’ve got an organized team behind you, but if [the next minister] has environmental expertise, things would move faster. This is not shameful to say.”
“I can’t say we absolutely failed, nor that we succeeded entirely,” he said, adding environmental issues in the country predated even the Civil War, and it was difficult to expect him to solve the issues in two years, the approximate period of his term.
“Maybe our achievements were small in the eyes of the people, when contrasted to the problems we face ... [but] it’s not Tarek Khatib who is supposed to solve all the environmental problems.”
THE ONGOING GARBAGE CRISIS
During Khatib’s tenure, the government undertook a heavily criticized plan to deal with the 2015 trash crisis by dumping aged garbage from the old Burj Hammoud landfill directly into the sea, in order to create coastal landfills into which new garbage would be dumped.
Khatib said the policy had been necessary because nobody in Lebanon wanted to deal with garbage in their own area. It is for the same reason that he supports waste incineration – another policy criticized by environmental NGOs because they believe Lebanon lacks a strong enough capability to oversee a solution that, if not managed correctly, could have severe consequences.
He said that, under the new decentralized Solid Waste Management Law endorsed by Parliament in September, municipalities had “the right” to each have their own waste incinerator if they respected international regulations.
“You can’t deny them that right. Today we can’t say that we can’t do [incineration] because something bad might happen,” he said, adding the Environment Ministry “can oversee 20 incinerators with the employees it currently has.”
For him, the main issue in the heated local debate over incinerators is lack of trust in the government. “The crisis is a crisis of trust in the government, rightly so because it didn’t put itself forward as a good model, and the conditions also didn’t help it do that,” he said.
He said a plan that would have restored some trust – an initiative to rehabilitate some of the 941 waste dumps dotting the country, at a cost of $75 million – was unable to get off the ground because ministers could not secure the necessary funding.
“The financial situation does not allow for this kind of expenditure on the environment today,” he said.
ACCUSATIONS AND BLAME
Civil society and activist groups have laid the blame for massive pollution, habitat destruction, deforestation and a quarrying industry that has disfigured Lebanon’s mountains, on the doorstep of the government, accusing it of committing environmental crimes.
Khatib said this was a misnomer.
“A crime means there is a criminal behind it. If someone commits a crime ... and you take steps to address it, you become a criminal? We shouldn’t say this,” he said.
“Let’s not exaggerate things, there are also good things that happen with regard to the environment. ... We shouldn’t create an image of the country to an extent that it has bad repercussions on tourism and the economy,” he said.
He replied similarly when speaking of the state’s decision to dump trash directly into the sea in Burj Hammoud, an apparent violation of the Barcelona Convention to prevent pollution of the Mediterranean.
Khatib laid blame on Israel for a significant portion of Lebanon’s pollution, saying, “The rockets that Israel launched here polluted the air and caused diseases. We are responsible, but the Israeli responsibility is also very big.”
The environment was also suffering as a result of the Lebanese Civil War, “which is still ongoing. The war isn’t just a night of shooting and it’s done; it’s ongoing as we still suffer from its damage and consequences and from those who participated.”
He claimed that the Free Patriotic Movement, which Aoun founded, “did not get blood on its hands in the war ... people can say otherwise, but let them prove it.”
The FPM did not exist during the war, but grew out of the movement of support for Aoun, who headed the Army and was engaged in combat in the latter part of the conflict.
POLITICAL POWER PLAY
Khatib defended his choice in September to reassign ministry employee Nizar Hani from his position as director of the Chouf Biosphere Reserve for “political reasons only.”
The move came in response to caretaker Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh reassigning an employee of his ministry affiliated with the Free Patriotic Movement.
Hani is reportedly affiliated with the Progressive Socialist Party, with which Hamadeh is closely allied.
Hamadeh has denied his action had any political dimension.
“If the same thing happened, I would do the same thing again. I wasn’t going to hide and say it was administrative, it was political and the employees paid the price of the politics,” Khatib said.
He claimed that FPM head Gebran Bassil “was very angry with my decision,” and had not been involved in it.
The fact that FPM allies ended up reassigning two Druze, including a reportedly PSP-affiliated employee of Electricite du Liban, did not make the issue sectarian, he said.
“This is not sectarian; it increased political party tensions but not sectarian tensions.”
ACHIEVEMENTS AND CHALLENGES
Despite the limitations he said his ministry had, Khatib said he had taken important steps forward during his tenure, including the creation of a limited hunting season in Lebanon “for the first time.”
He had also helped implement a Customs incentive for environmentally friendly products and was working to hire environmental police in order to strengthen the ministry’s ability to implement laws.
The Civil Service Council, effectively the state’s human resources bureau, would soon announce exams for 20 such officers, he said.
He also pointed to the Solid Waste Management Law, saying he had helped push it through Parliament after it had languished as a draft for more than a decade.
“I say to Lebanese citizens that I don’t hide there are many problems they are suffering from, but the Lebanese people should come together with the state ... to create a renaissance to get back to the beautiful country we had before that war that bore the worst environmental consequences,” Khatib said.
“It’s partly on the people the majority is on the state though, so it doesn’t seem I’m trying to make us look innocent.”